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The Golden Gate Express™

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Model trains zip through a mini San Francisco in the Conservatory of Flowers' first garden railway exhibition

November 20, 2008 - April 19, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO – All aboard The Golden Gate Express™ for a San Francisco holiday experience like no other! This winter, Golden Gate Park's Conservatory of Flowers premieres its first garden railway exhibition. It's a celebration of the city of San Francisco as model trains wend their way through a lush landscape of dwarf plants and steam past mini versions of the city's landmark buildings. The Golden Gate Express will be on view November 20, 2008 through April 19, 2009 and opens with a preview gala November 19, 2008.

The exhibit's main attraction is a large, G-gauge train set complete with a first-class passenger train and a freight train that loop past each other on separate tracks. The trains speed past ten replicas of some of San Francisco's most famous places including the Conservatory of Flowers itself, the Japanese Tea Garden, the Golden Gate Bridge, Mission Dolores, Chinatown's dragon gate, the Transamerica Pyramid building, the Ferry Building, Coit Tower, Ghirardelli Square and the Bently Reserve (formerly the Federal Reserve Building). Surrounding these landmarks is a magical landscape of miniature gardens and parks created with living plants including dwarf conifers, tiny orchids and more. Visitors will also enjoy appearances by costumed volunteer conductors.

The exhibit taps into nostalgia for the golden age of rail travel says exhibit designer Chip Sullivan. Sullivan, who created the master plan for the Golden Gate Express, is a professor of landscape architecture at UC Berkeley, an illustrator and an avid train enthusiast. "I grew up with trains," he says. "I'd go to look at steam engines with my father all the time. My grandfather gave me a model train set for my very first birthday. When you see a nice train set, it's almost hypnotic." And clearly addictive too. Sullivan isn't sure, but thinks he just may have the largest train set in Berkeley these days.

Sullivan's nostalgia comes with a very 21st Century twist however. The Conservatory wanted the exhibit to reflect present day San Francisco's cutting edge commitment to sustainability and the Conservatory's own environmental mission. Embracing the challenge, the artists of San Francisco's Figureplant, a leading prop and model making company in San Francisco, have taken a very creative approach to fabricating the scaled down landmark buildings. "These buildings will really showcase the creative reuse of objects," says 38-year-old Andy Vogt of Figureplant. "We're hoping people will be inspired to look differently at the things we throw out every day."

If visitors pay close attention, they'll notice that the Ghirardelli clock tower is tiled with old chocolate brown light switch plates, the Transamerica Pyramid building is studded with nearly 1000 keys from computer boards and Coit Tower features a combination of used plumbing supplies, tape measures and mini blinds.

The focus on sustainability is just one of the many ways that the Golden Gate Express™ is an ‘Only in San Francisco' event says Conservatory Director Brent Dennis. "So much about this says San Francisco," he says. "It's a real celebration of the things that make our city unique -- our architecture, our history, our parks and also our creativity and leadership in the environmental movement. I think the whole ‘Honey, I shrunk the city!' impact of this will delight just about everyone no matter what age."

The exhibition kicks off with a preview gala on November 19, 2008 at 6:30 p.m. that celebrates the romance of the rails and raises funds for the Conservatory's youth environmental education programs. Gala guests will be the first to see The Golden Gate Express™ and have the rare chance to experience the Conservatory at night. Guests can enjoy a signature Conservatini cocktail, premium wines, "Station Stops" of tantalizing treats provided by McCall Catering and live music. Tickets are $200 per person and can be purchased at

The Golden Gate Express is open Tuesdays – Sundays from 9 am to 4:30 pm and is included with admission to the Conservatory of $5 general; $3 youth 12-17, seniors and students with ID; $1.50 children 5-11; children 4 and under FREE. The public should call (415) 666-7001 or visit for more information.


The Conservatory of Flowers is a spectacular living museum of rare and beautiful tropical plants under glass. From Borneo to Bolivia, the 1,750 species of plants at the Conservatory represent unusual flora from more than 50 countries around the world. Immersive displays in five galleries include the lowland tropics, highland tropics, aquatic plants, potted plants and special exhibits. Opened in 1879, the wood and glass greenhouse is the oldest existing conservatory in North America and has attracted millions of visitors to Golden Gate Park since it first opened its doors. It is designated as a city, state and national historic landmark and was one of the 100 most endangered sites of the World Monuments Fund.